by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the men’s branch of the Idente Missionaries.
Madrid, August 01, 2021. | XVIII Sunday in Ordinary Time
Book of Exodus 16: 2-4.12-15; Letter to the Ephesians 4: 17.20-24; Saint John 6: 24-35.
Many parents, psychotherapists and educators have the experience that their children, clients and students… do not know what they want. But, really, this happens to all of us in some way, which reflects the difficult unity between mind and will, between our thinking and our desires.
Moreover, in our life, every time we obtain something we want, we have a new perspective from which to see other possibilities.
In the First Reading, the confusion of the people of Israel is clear. From their feelings of gratitude for having been freed from slavery in Egypt, they pass to the desire to return to the old situation because at least they sat around pots of meat and ate all the food they wanted. Even more seriously, the Ephesians, who had welcomed with enthusiasm, directly from St. Paul, the teaching of Jesus, receive this severe exhortation: That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.
In today’s Gospel text, Jesus himself diagnoses our poor and fragile Unitive Faculty, weak and chronically ill: Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.
The figure of our Readings today can relate to us as much as we ourselves can sacrifice our relationship with God just to go back to the old enslaving life of sin and fleeting pleasures of the world, represented in the perishable bread.
That is how we are. This should not discourage us. Even not exactly Christian thinkers, such as the Greek Heraclitus or Nietzsche, had the clear impression that we must courageously contemplate and face our inner division. The latter stated: The great individual is one who is constituted by a strong internal division, where evil and good passions are engaged in battle with each other. It is through this battle that one develops strength insight and wisdom.
Our conscious minds are not so much in charge of the decisions we make as they are great rationalizers of them. Which means they often conspire with our unconscious minds to craft stories about why we do things and even why we feel things that are just blatantly untrue. We often have far more invested in seeing ourselves as virtuous, noble, fair-minded, and good than we do in recognizing the truth: that we often want things and therefore do things that make us selfish, self-righteous, and unjust.
This explains why sometimes we may not actually know what we want. Or, even more commonly, we may not know why we want it. Though we all feel as if we have a uniquely accurate perspective on our own thought processes, sometimes we have even less clear a picture of our true selves than those around us, whose vision is not as obscured by the positive bias with which we unconsciously cannot help viewing ourselves.
Sometimes, on the other hand, our desires are so intense they possess us and unbalance us, causing us to behave in ways we find abhorrent, but that we seem somehow powerless to avoid. And sometimes our deepest desires reflect our deepest pain: we want to have a dead parent back with us; to be healthy again; to accomplish something; to be important or remembered. All these desires, these desires impact all of our behavior.
Thus, we cannot be satisfied with the easy answers our conscious minds often feed us for why we do the things we do. Rather, we need to consciously acknowledge what we really want, whether something we are unlikely to be able to get, something we are ashamed of wanting or think we should not want, or something that strikes us as irrational to want…or the fulfilled life the Holy Spirit is whispering us day and night.
This internal division cannot be overcome with our intelligence, with our good will or with our experience of past mistakes. That is why it is important that we contemplate this reality, this impotence that we all share as human beings, to find a good reason for our conversion, to turn our gaze to Jesus.
When Jesus answered, Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves, he was not scolding the crowd for seeking bread because they were hungry. Jesus was disappointed that the crowd did not expect more, not more bread but something more. Moses and Aaron, not to mention God, may have been disappointed that Israel did not expect more, not just some food, but that the God who delivered them from slavery would also sustain them in the desert.
It is not only about our ambition, the greed that all human beings have in one way or another, longing and seeking goods, comfort and well-being, but also the intimate confusion and lack of vision as to our best desires. The following story is funny, but hopefully it will serve to illustrate this truth.
Once a young man kneeled before a beautiful young woman beside a placid lake. “Darling,” he said, I want you to know that I love you more than life. I want you to marry me. I’m not a wealthy man. I don’t have a yacht, a Rolls-Royce or lots of money like Johnny, but I do love you with all my heart. The young woman paused for a moment and said, Darling, I love you with all my heart too. But before I say ‘yes,’ tell me a little more about Johnny.
What is our authentic desire, hidden and clouded by many other urgent or distressing desires? A perfect love. That desire is what in the mystical life we call Aspiration. It has two faces: to aspire to be loved without limit and to give that same love without limits. We cannot avoid it. It does not depend on our beliefs or the religion we profess. But aspiration is marred and postponed by multiple evasions (avoidances) and emergencies, if we speak from the viewpoint of will.
That Aspiration is inevitable because we are made in the image and likeness of God. And also because it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, at the deepest level of our being, in our spirit. That is why, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is saddened to see that those who listen to him limit their desires to satisfying their hunger, to having health, to not having any anguish for the future. When the love we live is full and complete, that is to have life, eternal life.
Jesus identifies Himself with the bread of life, the best metaphor and the most powerful reality that in the Eucharist infects us with that Aspiration to live love in all circumstances, in spite of your defects and my defects, of your mediocrity and mine. Pope Francis expressed it in this beautiful way:
The Lord, offering Himself to us in the simplicity of bread, also invites us not to waste our lives in chasing the myriad illusions that we think we cannot do without, yet that leave us empty within. The Eucharist … kindles our desire to serve. It … reminds us that we are not only mouths to be fed, but also His hands, to be used to help feed others. It is especially urgent now to take care of those who hunger for food and for dignity, of those without work and those who struggle to carry on. And this we must do in a real way, as real as the Bread that Jesus gives us. Genuine closeness is needed, as are true bonds of solidarity (June 14, 2020).
When Christ identifies himself with the bread of life, he is inviting us to imitate him in all situations, since he was able to forgive, to give signs of love, to accompany and console every human being at every moment. Whoever becomes like him becomes a proof of God’s presence in our lives and at the same time a prophecy of a love that we can only partially taste in this world.
As we have often heard, we can and should be Eucharist for our neighbor. This was reflected 1600 years ago in the statement of Saint Augustine: Be what you see, and receive what you are.
This is why to well and truly celebrate Eucharist is to become an oblation. It is to present oneself to God, to offer one’s life to Him… as Jesus did: for others.
In his first Apostolic Exhortation, entitled Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict stressed the sense of wonder the Eucharistic Mystery should awaken in our hearts. This sense of wonder or amazement should lead us to aspire to become one with Christ in what the Sacrament signifies. It should inspire us to become a reflection of Christ’s own self-gift in His supreme act of love.
The challenge here for us is not that we see with our eyes and believe in ideas about Jesus. The challenge is to see which things perish and which things endure, and to embed ourselves – to abide in, to focus our living on – the things that endure. Because only the things that endure truly satisfy, and only the things that endure bring true life. To live permanently in this state, in this form of vision and longing, in this Aspiration, is a grace of the Holy Spirit that is granted to us permanently, not simply once in a lifetime.
How do we nourish ourselves with this bread? What must we do? the crowd of Capernaum ask Jesus. The answer is given in the second part of the Gospel text: Not many works, but only one, to believe in the one the Father sent. No other thing is required.
This allows us to understand why our prayer has to make two parallel efforts: the Union that we call Formulative and the one we name Purificative Union.
In the first, we entrust to the criterion of Jesus all circumstances, all occasions, ordinary and extraordinary, so that they may be lived in an authentic Spirit of the Gospel. This is precisely to believe in the one whom the Father has sent, not only to have a rational idea of who he is and to admire his works, but to consult his opinion, his preference and his criterion in all our initiatives. He can clearly tell us “what we want”… and how to get it.
In the Purificative Union we strive to exclude everything that does not belong to that Spirit, in particular the impulses of our Dominant Defect, of our Attachments and of our instincts, especially the Instinct for Happiness. This is what St. Paul insists on in today’s Second Reading.
We are always tempted to dominate not only the present but also the future that instead belongs only to God. In the “Our Father,” Jesus invites us to ask God not security for the future, but the bread “for this day.” In this prayer we refuse to accumulate food for the next day, while many brothers are hungry today. If we are sincere, this petition frees our heart from the greed of possession and anxiety for the future (Lk 12:22-34).
Let us not forget, as the experience of Jesus, of the saints and of us sinners confirms, that the Holy Spirit always finds new and unexpected ways to bring us the bread of life we need, the grace to persevere in doing good. We can illustrate this with a little story:
A poor man had a rich but evil neighbor. Although poor, he was deeply religious. He would pray aloud many times during the day. This greatly irritated the rich man. One day, the poor man prayed so loudly: Lord, I have no more bread. I will die of hunger. Please help me! Hearing this, the rich man decided to make fun of his neighbor. He brought a basket of bread and placed it on the front door of his neighbor’s house. Then he went into hiding. When the poor man opened his door, he was jubilant upon seeing the bread: Lord, thank you very much for answering my prayer! You, indeed, are so good! At this point, the rich man came out and ridiculed him: You fool! It was not your God who gave you the bread. It was I! The poor man was surprised, but only for a while. Then he prayed again: Lord, thank you very much. You really love me that you even used the devil to help me!